Binghampton immigrants sell food to share their stories

Better understanding and fostering an entrepreneurship community in Binghampton could result in a growing food and restaurant scene in the diverse neighborhood.
Diversity is a tricky word.

Not that long ago, diversity in Memphis meant black and white. In more recent years, Latinos have added to that mix.

In Binghampton, black, white and Latino are all represented. But so are plenty of other nationalities. In fact, estimates are that some 20 or so nationalities are represented in the community located between Poplar and Summer avenues and East Parkway and Holmes Street.

Adding to that diversity are Sudanese soups, Mexican tamales and dumplings from Nepal. This neighborhood’s diversity includes immigrants and refugees who have brought their rich food traditions from home. And some of those Binghampton transplants are turning to entrepreneurship to bring their authentic food to the larger community. 

Thanks to a planning grant from the Kresge Foundation for its Fresh, Local & Equitable initiative, Little Bird Innovation and the Binghampton Development Corp. are working to learn more about the Binghampton food entrepreneur community. 

The collaboration seeks ways to foster that community by better understanding its needs while creating a strategic plan that hopefully provides necessary tools to the neighborhood’s entrepreneurs. 

Little Bird, an innovation and strategy consulting firm, was drawn to the Kresge Foundation’s call for grant applications that combined food, culture, art and placemaking. That rare combination was a perfect fit in the melting pot of Binghampton. Little Bird’s team reached out to Binghampton Development Corp.

“It’s a significant opportunity to build capacity in the Binghampton neighborhood,” said Noah Gray, executive director of the Binghampton Development Corp. “We’re hoping to get a more realistic picture of what economic opportunities around refugee food entrepreneurs in Binghampton there is. We’re hoping to be able to support that, whether it’s an incubator kitchen or a catering business or restaurant development.”

Kresge received more than 500 applications and ultimately awarded grants to 26 cities, including Memphis. The Binghampton Development Corp. was the lead applicant on the grant.

Little Bird representatives spent time meeting with various Binghampton organizations to better understand if the idea of helping refugees and immigrants start food-based businesses was an actual need in the community.

“The last thing we wanted was to hoist a project on the community,” said Nicole Heckman, Little Bird co-founder and partner. “One of the things we were told is refugees and immigrants know how to cook. You don’t need mastery of English or a business degree to start a food-based business.”

Notification came down in late spring of this year that Memphis was one of the grant recipients. The next step came in August with a convening in Cleveland that brought together all the grantees as a cohort to discuss goals for the program.

Soon after that convening came the secondary research which built a body of knowledge describing the Binghampton community and the experience of refugees coming to the U.S. 

“We’re building a rich tapestry of experience through a shared experience through food,” Heckman said.

Local organizations were interviewed, including Caritas Village, World Relief Memphis, Refugee Empowerment Program, the Binghampton Development Corp., Broad Avenue Arts District, Centro Cultural, Epicenter and Community LIFT.

“We started with in-depth interviews to understand the landscape of Binghampton,” said Olivia Haslop, Little Bird design strategist. “We start a project with treating people who have been there for years as the experts. We looked at what are the resources that exist in the neighborhood and see how we can leverage those down the road.”

Those assets include churches, especially those with commercial kitchens that could be used by future food entrepreneurs. But it also includes community leaders who are invested in the neighborhood like Onie Johns, founder of Caritas Village. Caritas, a Binghampton restaurant and community center, acted as an umbrella to house a group of five fledgling food entrepreneurs. 

That work culminated with the Caritas on Broad food pop-up event at the Broad Avenue Art Walk in early November.

Neighborhood food entrepreneurs prepared and sold their specialties at an empty outdoor restaurant space adorned with twinkling lights and the scent of spices from North and South Sudan, Nepal, Kenya and Mexico. The event exceeded expectations with many vendors selling out of their food within hours.

“The art walk was an example of testing as a form of research,” Heckman said. “We were looking to see how does multicultural food sell in the marketplace in Memphis. We feel there is a gap in Memphis. We wanted to test that hypothesis. Will it sell? Will people want more?”

The initial answers to both questions appear to be yes. 

The event was an opportunity for some entrepreneurs to sell their food for the first time. It provided an opportunity to build confidence while also seeing if it’s something they want to pursue either as a restaurant or catering business.”

The entrepreneurs are at different stages of business development. Indra Sunuwar, for example, is in the idea phase. Her dream while in a refugee camp in Nepal was to open a restaurant to support her family. That dream continued when the family relocated to Memphis when she was 16.

Now 21, she wants to have a restaurant that gives her the opportunity to provide jobs for her whole family. Her dream had its first step into reality at the Broad Avenue pop-up where she sold homemade dumplings.

“I want people to know about our culture and our foods,” she said. “I have a dream of getting our own restaurant. Part of the dream is to support the family.”

She hopes to have a business in the next year that gives her the opportunity to sell dumplings and other popular food from Nepal while providing employment for her family.

Iptisam Salih has been in Sunuwar’s shoes. She left Sudan and came to Memphis in 1999. She has a catering venture, Ibti’s Soup and Catering, that offers pretty much anything from Italian food to East African specialties. She perfected her craft while employed as the kitchen manager of Caritas Village for five years where her soups became staples.

For now, she works at Nike Inc. and does catering on the side, using the Binghampton Development Corp.’s commercial kitchen to prepare food for friends and family. One day she may open her own restaurant and launch her catering endeavor to the greater public. 

Another Sudanese refugee wants to take her dream to another level. Flora Elisa and her Kenyan business partner, Chepkemei Chumba, are in the early stages of their own catering endeavor called Aroma Kitchen.

Chumba is a full-time biologist who came to the region four years ago to attend the University of Mississippi. Originally from Kenya, she had spent several years in Washington where her father was a diplomat. She was desperate to connect to African culture and eventually found it attending three churches every Sunday.

Chumba and Elisa, a Sudanese refugee, want their aspired catering business to focus on events while sharing East African culture with the city and providing important employment opportunities for others in the refugee and immigrant communities.

Among their challenges are finding start-up capital, a commercial kitchen and networking with potential customers. They both look forward to the opportunity to share their East African cultures.

“I’m going to use this opportunity to educate people about the basic culture and history,” Chumba said. “We want to be able to come to an understanding and appreciation of one another.”

Beyond the research stage, next steps in the FreshLo program could include helping entrepreneurs open a business, including understanding the legal side of operating and gaining the appropriate permits.

Little Bird’s long-term goal is to have an international food festival in Binghampton toward the conclusion of the planning part of the project some time next year. 

That festival would highlight the food of a diverse neighborhood while sharing stories of the entrepreneurs. Everything learned would go into a final strategic plan that ideally goes into an action plan to foster everything from a food bazaar to actual restaurants. 

“We believe strongly that we need to do no harm or minimize harm,” Heckman said. “They’re getting an opportunity in a low-risk way. There’s no other cost than the ingredient cost for the pop-up.”

The pop-up event closed a perceived gap between the Binghampton neighborhood and Broad Avenue Arts District. Katie McWeeney, executive director of the Broad Avenue Arts District, said that this year’s Art Walk was the first to include businesses from the greater Binghampton community, like Caritas Village. 

There are some vacant spaces on and near the street, possibly properties that one day could house a collection of Binghampton food entrepreneurs. 

Whatever happens, sharing cultures with the greater neighborhood and city with food at the center could be another step in moving the community forward.

“To know your food is accepted means you’re accepted,” Haslop said. “Food is the living room for the homesick. Understanding the significance of food for different cultures is powerful.”
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Lance Wiedower.

Lance is a veteran journalist with more than 16 years of experience in newsrooms in the Memphis area as a reporter and editor, including most recently as managing editor of The Daily News. He regularly contributes to The Daily News, including a biweekly travel column, The Daily Traveler.